Riyadh al-Turk: In and Out of Syrian Prison

Noted Former Syrian Prisoner Riyadh al-Turk Speaks Out on Life Inside Prison: ‘I stop thinking in prison’
Mohammad Ali Atassi
Web-based photograph of Riyadh al-Turk.
Riyadh al-Turk has few political parallels as a person, prisoner, and leader. He is a professional politician in the noblest sense of the word. For al-Turk, politics is a means of attaining the most significant degree of justice, human nobility, and freedom. He has dedicated most of his time and effort to politics, only to be repaid with a lengthy prison sentence.
While reading this interview, some may feel that Riyadh al-Turk has yet to learn from his most recent imprisonment. Here he is, back to his old habits of challenging and battling the authorities. Instead, hopefully, everyone will learn a more critical and far-reaching lesson – that authority's true power and legitimacy are embodied in its ability to absorb criticism and learn from it.
The doyen of Syrian intellectuals, Antun Maqdisi, considered Riyadh al-Turk a man of state in his statements and positions. When a man of state calls for reconciliation, he should not be imprisoned. Instead, he should be drawn into dialogue and discussion to benefit the nation and its people. Riyadh al-Turk is free again. Syria still waits for its freedom. The following is an interview I conducted with him where he reflects on the time he spent in prison.

Do you feel that your release is a serious step toward democratic openness?
Democratic openness doesn’t come about through the release of a single prisoner. You are returning to this prisoner the freedom and rights that were taken away. Genuine openness comes from a plan to solve the country’s chronic problems and overcome previous political mistakes. Opposition forces and intellectuals have articulated basic political demands. The authorities have not yet taken any serious steps in that direction.
What were your thoughts during the two days that you spent alone in the interrogation department of political security in Damascus and then during your first solitary confinement in Adra Central Prison? Did you try to analyze the reasons for your detention and how long it might last?
I didn’t think about anything. When I enter prison, I stop thinking, analyzing, and waiting for the day when I’ll be released. That would only increase my suffering and do nothing for me. Enough! I’m in prison. There’s no room for thinking until you get out. In prison, I’m confined. The most important thing is for me to be steadfast, maintain my political position, not set a bad example, not give up the secrets of my party, and not back down from my previous ideas and statements. That’s what I did.
But general political conditions have changed since your first imprisonment, providing hope for your release from the very beginning. Did this hope affect you during your latest imprisonment?

No, never. I’m a realist. I don’t count on hope. The only thing I care about is that I stay strong in prison. What do I gain from living in the hope that I’ll be released after a month or a year if that time comes and I don’t get out? Disappointment can crush a political prisoner. That’s why I avoid it.
Even after I was sentenced to two and a half years, my view was that I could be there longer in the event of a new, extrajudicial order. I don’t trust this system, dominated by extrajudicial rulings and where there is no rechtstaat [rule of law]. Nevertheless, I was convinced from the beginning that I might possibly be released, perhaps even before the end of my sentence. My imprisonment and release have less to do with judicial rulings than a political decision in new political circumstances.
One of our primary points of difference in the film “Cousin” comes when you talk about your ability to forget the outside world during your first protracted period of imprisonment. Weren’t prison conditions slightly improved during your second imprisonment, resulting in more contact with the outside world through regular family visits, meetings with lawyers, and court appearances?
That’s true, especially when some of my ten fellow detainees accompanied me. But these thoughts don’t help in terms of my resistance to prison while I’m inside. I have a method that has proven its usefulness for the prisoner, no matter how much the conditions of imprisonment change or how long or short the sentence is. The most crucial point for a prisoner in the “underworld” is to avoid thinking about the outside world. I’m like a bird captured and put in a cage. There’s nothing to be gained from thinking.

But the caged bird still dreams of flying.

I also want to leave prison. But thinking about getting out and the outside world does nothing but increase my suffering.

Are you saying that visits from your wife, Dr. Asma, your daughters, and your grandchildren didn’t make you think about the outside world?

Believe me, Believe me, “cousin,” I didn’t want them to visit me so they wouldn’t affect my emotions. On the day of the visit, I’m like someone who’s been paralyzed. I don’t know how to act. The outside world takes control of me. I need several days to regain my balance as a prisoner and blow the “smoke” of the visit out of my head. You need only ask Dr. Asma how often I asked them to come – every two months or just once a season. I don’t want the outside world to intrude on my “underworld” and increase my suffering. Forgetting the outside world comforts the prisoner, but it never means he has less emotion for his family.
So, this short prison sentence was almost more complex than the previous one regarding your relations with the outside world and contact with your family?
In the sense you mentioned, yes, it was more difficult from a moral and emotional perspective because the visits were almost constant. The treatment, material conditions, and health at Adra Prison can’t be compared with my previous imprisonment. Even so, a political prison is still a prison. It unjustly curtails a person’s freedom. That’s the main point.
In a phenomenon that Syrian cities have not witnessed for a long time, your supporters constantly stood in front of the State Security Court, clapping each time you emerged from a hearing under guard. They even dared to display democratic slogans in the street, calling for the release of political prisoners and the abolition of the state of emergency. Was this another unwanted reminder of the outside world when you saw them from the court door?
No. There’s no emotional side or family dimension to this. It’s a part of the struggle that raises my spirits. It’s proof that the democratic movement hasn’t stopped and that people are still prepared to sacrifice. I was heartened to see the courage of young people pioneering new forms of protest. It was more than I could imagine. It’s proof that the state of hiding and silence has begun to fall apart, which is an essential sign for the future of the democratic movement in Syria. 
So, do you think that certain events in the outside world can lift a prisoner’s spirits?
Naturally, but things are all set for me. I would have stood firm even if no one had come to express their solidarity with me at the courthouse. How can you know whether supporters will come to protest as they did?
What did you miss most when you found yourself in prison again?
It’s really strange. You keep pushing me toward specific topics, but I pull you in the opposite direction. In prison, I don’t miss anything and don’t want anything. I’m satisfied with whatever comes my way. I didn’t ask for anything from anyone and took care of my affairs alone. Why should I torment myself when there’s a chance my request could be denied? Even these cardboard boxes and nylon bags full of things you see here now: I didn’t ask for them from anyone. I gathered them from what the rest of the prisoners threw away on my way to the recreation yard. You’ll find hundreds of empty packs of cigarettes I collected among these things; later, I used the paper to write down some observations.
During the first solitary period in Adra prison, I found a dirty, discarded newspaper on the ground on my way to the recreation yard. I picked it up and cleaned it off. Imagine my surprise when I found two total pages about the attacks on New York and Washington. That was the first time I’d heard about the events of September 11.
How did your previous experience help you this time? Did you create arabesques from the black beans in the lentil soup to kill time?
The main benefit was maintaining good relations with the prison guards and quickly making time pass. The lentil soup in this prison was good enough that it contained virtually no black beans. The time passed in conversation with other prisoners when we were together in the sleeping quarters, in the kitchen making food, or reading after they opened the prison library.
Some viewers of the film “Cousin” saw a superhuman feat in your strength during your first imprisonment. What is your response?
Whoever says that probably hasn’t suffered what our people have under dictatorship; during my first imprisonment, I was consciously strong. I faced the brutal conditions, ready to die as though I were in battle. Why is a person strong if not to defend his humanity? No one in history has stayed strong in conditions like that for the sake of something inhuman. I didn’t see myself as a victim, and I didn’t look for anyone’s sympathy. In prison, I paid the price for sticking to my position, even if that price was harsh and unjust.
How do you feel about the movement of solidarity with you that was so evident outside of Syria? How do you feel about those who said: “The appeal from European governments to the Syrian authorities to release you and the resolution from the European Parliament that bore your name applied political pressure to weaken the Syrian position”?
I am highly thankful and grateful to everyone who supported me or other political prisoners in Syria, both within the country and abroad. This proves that the issue of human rights and dignity expresses human values shared by all peoples on earth despite their differences. Naturally, we must look to the West, although there are two Wests, not one. Many cultural and political centers of power in the West still carry the values of enlightenment and rationalism. We need to come together with them in the future based on democracy and people’s right to freedom and a decent life.
Certain Lebanese figures and media outlets played a prominent role in supporting you. What can you say to them and the Lebanese people?
Today, we stand against those who say, “Together, by God.” Let me state clearly: we want our two peoples to return to normal. We were indeed one country in the past. But conditions changed, and we became two states. We Syrians must now respect the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon. I think that the Syrian domination of Lebanon is one of the worst aspects of our political life. It prevents the return of real democratic life to this country. Suppose Syrian interference in Lebanese internal affairs ended. In that case, I’m sure that the Lebanese people would respect this and not allow narrow-minded factionalism to create a rift between the two peoples because of their temporary inability to distinguish the people from the regime in Syria. But the critical element is that we behave correctly, which means not interfering in their internal affairs.
Today, the essential common element between the two peoples is the struggle for democracy. There is a familiar foe in both countries. Any progress that democracy makes in either of the two countries is progress in the same direction for the other country. This is the source of our joint interest and our tie to the democratic movement in Lebanon.
Do you feel that there is a democratic movement in Lebanon today with which you can develop a joint program to benefit both peoples?
There is undoubtedly a democratic movement that I identify with. I want them to take a stand above the factionalist fray in the interests of Lebanon, primarily a stance on Israel. I’m ready to stand together with them on the need for the Syrian Army to leave Lebanon. If the Lebanese want this and if there’s a need for it, an accord could provide for helping Lebanon against Israel. If the Syrian democratic movement can break from some of its one-sided and opportunistic tendencies, it will join forces with its counterpart [in Lebanon]. Also, I don’t support the idea that Hezbollah should monopolize the defense of the South. This responsibility should fall to the general government. Unfortunately, Syrian policy has encouraged factional divisions, although the Lebanese national movement in the beginning played an important, primary role in resisting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Do you think you may see Syria become a democratic country someday? Don’t you think that your sacrifices have been in vain?
Individual efforts can sometimes awaken people’s consciences and help to break down the wall of fear and silence. Nonetheless, I entertain no illusions of heroic victories. I’m a brick in the edifice I see as the future of a democratic Syria. Others will have to lay other bricks, as they have done and are doing. This is the basis of the hope that inspires me to sacrifice despite the present difficulties. Many people have sacrificed in our history. They faced limited prospects but served as an example to those who came later. Despite this, I’m optimistic about the political situation despite the weak opposition. It has become challenging for the hotheads to move the country backward and make history repeat itself.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 49, 2004. 
This is a group translation in collaboration with the author. The English version of this interview appears exclusively in Al Jadid with permission of the author. The Arabic version of this interview appeared in the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi (December 23, 2002).
The translation was slightly edited by Elie Chalala, Al Jadid’s editor, in 2024.
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